From My Toes Up To My Ears (The Man In Me)

I was already looking upon “Small Town Crime”, the latest film written & directed by the Nelms Brothers, with a kind eye because it stars John Hawkes, one of my favourite current actors. The choice of “Good Times” by Eric Burdon & the Animals to accompany the opening credits clinched the deal & I settled into the sofa to enjoy a capable, violent, low-life thriller which tips its hat to the Coen Brothers & to Tarantino. Speaking of the Coen Brothers, I do like a good tune at the start of a movie & I do like this.

 

 

“The Man In Me” is from “New Morning”, Bob Dylan’s second LP of 1970. The sprawling, deliberately indulgent double album “Self Portrait” was the future Nobel laureate’s way of letting the Woodstock Nation know that if they really wanted a leader to follow then they should be looking in another direction. Bob’s retreat from the public gaze after his motorcycle accident in 1966 added mystery to the legend, leaving the Dylanologists to pore over & think too much about his recorded output. The superbly lyrical “John Wesley Harding” & the Country-croon of “Nashville Skyline” were a break from the early topical Folk songs & from the phosphorescent Rock & Roll of the mid-Sixties. On “New Morning” Dylan was bringing it all back home but Home was a different place now .

 

Image result for new morning bob dylan“New Morning”, quickly recorded in New York, is a lovely piece of kit. “Day of the Locusts”, about an uncomfortable time at Princeton & “Went to See the Gypsy”, an imagined meeting with Elvis, showed Dylan was still master of the spiky put-down but it’s an album with a predominantly romantic, contented outlook. The title track, “If Not For You” (an instant classic),”Sign on the Window” & others were simple, tender paeans to domestic bliss. “The Man in Me” is in that category &, to some extent, it was “The Big Lebowski” that brought it back to the world’s attention. Over here in the UK we already knew what a great love song it was because in the Summer of 1977 you didn’t go to a club or a blues dance without hearing this great version.

 

 

Image result for matumbiMatumbi were a keystone in the UK Reggae scene. A homegrown group who paid the bills backing touring Jamaican artists, their early singles, a cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Brother Louie”, the Rasta-influenced “Wipe Them Out”, didn’t really get a wide hearing. At the time the national charts were based on high street & chain sales, excluding specialist independent shops. “After Tonight” (1976), a self-penned, sweet, harmonious harbinger of Lovers Rock, stayed on the Reggae charts for almost 6 months without bothering the Top of the Pops list. The following year “The Man in Me” was the most successful Reggae 45 in the UK & still never made the Top 40. Matumbi did not get the shot they deserved.

 

After signing with a bigger label the group released a debut LP “Seven Seals” (1978), which, beautifully produced by guitarist Dennis Bovell, still is some good listening. Reggae was being heard a lot more after Bob Marley but it was newer, younger Black British groups, Aswad, Steel Pulse, who were getting the attention. Bovell was busy with other projects. He became a partner/producer for the Lovers Rock label, writing the sure-fire smash “Silly Games” for Janet Kay,. There were Dub albums released under the pseudonym Blackbeard, his Dub Band provided the imaginative musical foundation for the poems of Linton Kwesi Johnson & he scored Franco Rosso’s sound system drama “Babylon” (1980). Dennis Bovell was a groundbreaker & an inspiration for those who came after him on the British Reggae scene.

 

When, in 1979 during the sessions for “London Calling”, the Clash made a demo of “The Man in Me”. It was the UK Pop Reggae of Matumbi they were covering not the Dylan original. It seems that Matumbi themselves discovered the song from another group’s version recorded in 1971.

 

 

Image result for the persuasions street corner symphonyNow here’s a group that you don’t hear enough about. Formed in New York in 1962 the Persuasions were an acapella group who caught the ear of Frank Zappa, a champion of Doo Wop music, who recorded them for his Straight label. Through the 1970’s they continued to make records which were never anachronistic or revivalist because they always sang with Soul & Joy. “The Man in Me” is included on “Street Corner Symphony” (1972) possibly the best of their albums though their just vocals versions of classic songs are all worth checking out.

 

The Persuasions kept on keeping on. At the end of the 20th century there was a Christmas record then one for kids before in 2000 “Frankly A Capella-The Persuasions Sing Zappa” was not only very entertaining but made a whole lot of sense. This began a series of albums based on the catalogue of a single artist, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, U2 & Dylan. These are perhaps not as successful as the Zappa one but no-one does what the Persuasions do better than them & Jah bless them for it.

 

Post-Lebowski “The Man in Me” spawned many more cover versions. I do like the one by Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires (I would, wouldn’t I?), it’s exactly the heartfelt, honest love song that Jason, inspired by his new wife, was hoping to emulate. My favourite thing this week is not only worth featuring here but is also a fine piece of synchronicity.

 

 

Image result for bobby vee new soundBobby Vee is from Fargo, North Dakota (hello to the Coen Brothers again) who, in 1959 as a 16 year old, had a hit in Minnesota with his first single “Suzie Baby”. 18 year old Bob Dylan, calling himself Elston Gunn, blagged a short-lived gig as a piano player with Vee, his first professional experience. When Bob went his way, to New York in search of Woody Guthrie, Bobby exchanged his rockabilly pompadour for a haircut your mother would like & became the biggest, 5 Gold records, of the early 1960’s teen idols. The British Invasion put an end to all that & Bobby Vee, despite covering a couple of Beatles songs, & the label cheekily calling the album “…Sings the New Sound From England”, had just one more hit in 1968. Dylan always spoke very fondly of that brief period & performed his own version of “Suzie Baby”, once when Bobby Vee was in the audience.

 

Image result for bobby vee bob dylanIn 2012 Bobby Vee was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease & his 3 sons spent some quality time with their father in the garage studio at his home in Tucson Arizona. The result was “The Adobe Sessions” (2014), a record I’m unfamiliar with but if there’s anything else as good as this take on “The Man in Me” then further investigation is required. There are younger groups making this kind of Folk-Rock who are being hailed as the new incarnation of the Band! It’s an assured, quite moving version & I like it a lot.

 

So there’s 4 versions of this great song. It may not be “Like A Rolling Stone” or “All Along the Watchtower” but it states a simple truth about Love & that honesty is the best you can ask from a Pop song. “Take a woman like you to get through to the man in me”. That’s right!

 

 

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New Music From Derry (Spring 2018)

The occasion of a new video from STRENGTH N.I.A. is a time to sit up & pay attention. Their self-described “Werewolf Pop”, indigenous Derry music made on pieces of dead machinery was so effective & affecting that, to do things right, I asked a friend who  knew a bit more about the band to contribute their views. In July of 2016 Paul Pj McCartney, a stalwart of & an authority on the Derry scene kindly wrote this piece. If you missed it it’s just a click away. Strength N.I.A’s new song “Brendan Bradley” to my ears, sounds like the most complete realisation yet of a manifesto to reflect the culture of their city in their music.

 

 

Brendan Bradley was a footballer from Derry in N.Ireland, he holds the record for the most goals scored by an individual in League of Ireland soccer history. His career spanned from 1966 – 1986. Brendan Bradley grew up in the Creggan area of Derry, a Catholic estate that was a ‘No Go’ area for the British army during the troubles in Northern Ireland. It was during this time that Brendan was detained by the British army at a border checkpoint in the 1970s whilst traveling between the North and the South of Ireland for football games. The British army could detain people at will under the Terrorism act of 1974. Brendan was later released and went on to become a true Irish sports legend scoring a total of 235 goals.

 

What a song this is, spare & true with a haunting beauty. A celebration of a local sportsman who made his mark on a wider stage. The video is filmed in the city & features the new Derry City stadium at the Brandywell. When I visited last year the Candystripers were playing out of town, it’s a place I must visit when I return. Singer Rory proudly wears the shirt worn by Owen de Gama, a South African & the only player in the league with his own fan club, in the 1988 FAI Cup Final. I love music, I love football & I love this song. Congratulations to the band & all involved. Strength N.I.A. play a show at the Nerve Centre in Derry next weekend. That’s not one to miss.

 

My good friend Mickey Rooney has knocked around the music scene a bit. I know, judging from the mix that is always playing whenever I get in his motor, that he has great taste in guitar music. So, when he throws his support behind CHERYM it’s only polite to give them a listen &, of course, he’s right. Cherym, formed in early 2017, are guitarist/singer Hannah Richardson, her long-time friend Lauren Kelly on drums & bass player Nyree Porter who explained  “it just clicked we got on and they all wanted to be my friend”. Their first single “Take It Back” is exactly the kind of fresh energetic Pop-Punk you want to hear from a bright young band & it goes like this…

 

 

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing

 

I know, good isn’t it? As Damian O’Neill, still an Undertone, now a Monotone, said “I’m just about to play it again”. The song deservedly caught the attention of local & national radio. You can own it by clicking on “Buy” in the link above. On 12th of May “Mouth Breatherz”, a new EP will be available, live dates across Ireland & the UK are planned as are BBC radio sessions. All the latest news is on Cherym’s Facebook page & I suggest that you get on to them early because these young women have a live set of impressive original material & if you wait until the end of the Summer there will be a long queue.

 

Image result for wood burning savagesOn my first night in Derry I saw the WOOD BURNING SAVAGES play an acoustic set. My impression that they were good guys was confirmed when later in the weekend one of their members picked us up in his van & took us home at 1 a.m., sparing us the hoo-ha of finding a taxi that is traditionally part of a night out in the city. The four piece were formed in 2012, played the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury in 2014 & have plenty of experience gigging all over Ireland & the rest of Europe. What I saw that night was very enjoyable but I’m getting the impression that I did not catch W.B.S. in full effect. From what I’ve heard & seen since these guys like to rock.

 

 

Image may contain: 4 people, including Kevin Magee, people smiling“Stability” is the debut LP by the Wood Burning Savages & will be available next week on the 27th of April. Frontman Paul Connolly says it’s  “a collection of songs about a working class furious at years of empty promises”. You can judge for yourself from the clip above for “Purple Heart” & another for the rifftastic “I Don’t Know Why I Do It To Myself”. They are both full on & very good. Paul isn’t always furious, here he seems happy to help out one of the city’s less fortunate with a copy of the album. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that. Kevin is one of the nicest people in Derry & lucky enough to be married to the lovely Ali). You can satisfy all your Wood Burning Savages needs  by visiting their website. Me, my fancy is taken by the combination offer of a CD & a rather tasty band tee shirt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sound & Vision (April 2018)

As regular readers (a big “Hello” to both of you) will know this past month I have been mainly listening to & writing about Soul & Funk, music that continues to fascinate & delight. I do still keep an ear on new Rock music but, for me, much of it sounds like something that has not only been done before but done better. Currently the only non-Soul records at the front of the stack are much-played discs by XTC & Teenage Fanclub (oh & Steely Dan…always the Dan). News of a new release by a guitar hero of mine has piqued my interest & caused me to temporarily give up the Funk to investigate further.

 

 

“The Tracers” is the first track to be released from “Call the Comet”, the upcoming album from Johnny Marr. Of course Johnny is always going to be best remembered for his work over 30 years ago (I know!) with the Smiths. His layered soundscapes perfectly framed Morrissey’s sometimes downcast, always droll lyrics to revitalise British guitar music & make them the best band in the country. After the break-up he became a guitar-for-hire, content to add quality to whatever took his fancy. The 3 Electronic albums with Bernard Sumner off of New Order & others are the only ones where he has put his name to the songs & stepped to the front of the stage.

 

Image result for johnny marr the messengerThis will be the third solo LP by Marr & I will be on it because I took too long to get around to the previous two. “The Messenger” (2013) is up there with the best records of the decade. No new ground is broken but from the rush & the push of the opener “The Right Thing Right” through to the dead stone classic “New Town Velocity” its capacious jangle, anthemic without bombast, updates a quintessential 1980’s Manchester sound. Of course the music can remind you of his old band, it’s what Johnny Marr does. He’s not from the traditional axeman hero mould. He has some pretty good Rock & Roll influences along with the taste & imagination to incorporate them into his own distinctive, melodic playing. His proficiency in creating the sound of the Smiths brings to mind Tony Hicks off of the Hollies, another Manchester guitar hero of mine who knew how a great Pop single went.

 

 

So, what’s on the TV then?  Nothing much, I know. I binged the latest series of “Schitt’s Creek” in 2 days because, except for the new batch of “Curb…”, it’s the only comedy that makes me laugh out loud. Yesterday I discovered how to edit the “continue watching” on Netflix so that’s a whole lot of disappointment out of my life for ever. The one series this year that has had me hooked, good enough to make me want to consider what I’ve just watched, too good to rush onto the next episode is “Counterpart”.

 

Image result for counterpart jk simmons“Counterpart” is a parallel universe spy thriller set in the two Berlins, one in the Alpha world (that’s ours) the other in the Prime world ( the same as ours but different). The only portal between the two is strictly controlled but, people being how they are in any world that they hook up to, there are bad things going on & these things get messy. It’s a 10 part season, light on the science, heavy on the fiction, which takes its time in telling its tale. The series is anchored by two star performances by J K Simmons. In a complex plot you usually know which of the Howard Silks you are watching from his demeanour. The supporting cast includes the “always watchable” Olivia Williams, Richard Schiff, Adeel Akhtar & its good to see Stephen Rea, a fine actor, with a meaty part. “Counterpart” may not be for everyone, there are plot holes which will give sci-fi pedants a bumpy ride. Its concerns with Love, loss, & identity kept me watching & the arrival of “The Management” in the final episode has me waiting eagerly for series 2.

 

OK, the new series of Legion” starts this week. I’ll watch but if it keeps messing me about with whole episodes that never really happened then I have an off switch on my remote & I’m not afraid to use it. Later this month sees the return of Jim “Brockmire”, a series I did find to be funny first time around. In the meantime it’s back to the Netflix to see if there’s anything that I want to “continue watching”.

Dogs & Chickens In Space.

Up to now, & it has been quite a while, I have avoided slapping a single song on to here, knocking out a couple of sentences about it & throwing it out on to the Internet. That seemed a little easy, even lazy, it didn’t really fit the loosehandlebars template (which anyway happened more by luck than judgement) & it could be the beginning of a slippery slope where I end up posting photos of kittens. I don’t want that, neither do you, no-one wants that, at least no-one I know. But…there is so much great music that I would like to have around the blog. So, here is the first of possibly an endless series, probably one that will run out of steam in the middle of next week.

 

This is the fantastic Five Du-Tones from 1964 & the stratospheric “The Chicken Astronaut”.

 

 

Image result for five du tonesThe Five Du-Tones recorded the original version of “Shake A Tail Feather”, a boisterous variant of “Twist & Shout” which some will remember from James & Bobby Purify & all of us know from “The Blues Brothers”. The group released 9 singles on the One-derful label between 1963-5, most of them expositions of dances that never caught on. “The Flea”, “The Gouster”, “The Woodbine Twine” & “The Cool Bird”, you remember them…no, nor me. Their ragged Doo-Wop, delivered with energy & humour, was never more effective than on this space oddity “The Chicken Astronaut”, a touching tale of a less than intrepid explorer who would prefer to keep both feet on Earth.

 

 

Image result for belka space dog badgeWhilst we are on the subject of Mankind flinging its agents “ever outward…into the colourless, tasteless, weightless sea of outwardness without end” (Kurt Vonnegut), how about this rather desirable enamel badge of Belka, one of the first living animals to orbit the Earth & survive. In August 1960 Belka, along with another doggie cosmonaut, Strelka, had a grand day out aboard Sputnik 5, lived to wag the tail & became a hero of the Soviet Union. One of Strelka’s puppies was presented by Premier Khrushchev to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy & went to live in the White House which seems a much more civilised way of fostering US-Russian relations than being peed on by prostitutes (allegedly).

 

They followed in the pawsteps of the, probably more famous, Laika, the “Muttnik” who, it was reported, died after 6 days in orbit when the oxygen supply ran out. It was over 40 years later that it was revealed that Laika lasted only 6 hours before stress & over-heating proved fatal. Belka & Strelka were much less fazed by their trip to outer space &, from the available photos, seem very happy about the experience. They are immortalised in all sorts of Soviet-era paraphenalia & their preserved bodies are on display at Moscow’s Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts which seems like a better place to visit than Madame Tussaud’s.

 

Image result for belka and strelka space dogsImage result for belka and strelka space dogs

 

Doh! What do you know? I’m posting photos of cute animals already. There is no hope for me!

Going To Chicago (Tyrone Davis)

For someone who has released 30 albums & enjoyed over 20 Top 20 R&B hits, 3 at #1, Tyrone Davis is not as celebrated & remembered as well as some of his contemporaries. He came to wider public attention in February 1969 when his first successful single replaced Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” at the top of the R&B charts. Two weeks later it was succeeded by “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone. You know those two songs & you can see that it took a pretty good record to make it to #1 back then. “Can I Change My Mind” was more than pretty good, it was Soul Dynamite.

 

 

Image result for tyrone davis can i change my mindBy 1968 two of the leading lights of the talented group who had gathered at Chicago’s Okeh Records were looking for greater independence & a management takeover by Epic was proving to be an obstacle. Curtis Mayfield made plans to leave his group the Impressions & establish his own label Curtom. Similarly A&R manager/producer Carl Davis struck out for himself & founded Dakar. One of his first signings was a former valet/chauffeur to Blues man Freddie King whose records as Tyrone the Wonder Boy had not made a mark. In the time he took to change his name Tyrone Davis gave the label their first hit. “Can I Change My Mind”, originally a b-side, moved Chicago Soul forward. The punchy, buoyant horns are still there, the bass of Bernard Reed & guitar of “Mighty” Joe Young adding an intriguing modern funkiness which influenced the way Pop-Soul sounded from now on. In Jamaica, after Alton Ellis had a hit at Studio 1, it became a song that great singers, Delroy Wilson, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown & others, all wanted to record.

 

Tyrone’s first LP is the one named after the hit single. Half of the songs are taken from the Atlantic Soul catalogue but this is no set of covers  quickly assembled to cash in while the singer is a hot property. Opening with Wilson Pickett’s “She’s Looking Good” followed by a surprising & effective interpretation of “Knock On Wood” Davis’ strong, bluesy voice is encouraged by immaculate production & arrangements by Willie Henderson & Don Myrick. The Chicago session regulars, equally at home with Blues or Soul are on point too. The LP may not have been as expansive or as ambitious as the greatest of the records made by African-American artists at that time but it’s a finely realised collection of songs that belongs on the top shelf alongside them.

 

 

Image result for tyrone davis turn back the hands of timeWithin 18 months Tyrone was back at the top of the R&B charts & crossing over into the Pop Top 10. “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time” is a smooth, impeccably crafted hit single while the rest of the LP with that title is a showcase for the singer’s extensive range . On the ballads it’s as if Bobby “Blue” Bland was a Pop singer & that’s a high compliment. This “Soul Train” clip is from December 1972, some time after the song was top of the pops. It’s as good an example of Tyrone in his pomp as there is. By the end of 1970, with the success of other singles taken from this record, Tyrone Davis was a fixture in the US R&B best sellers.

 

I’m going to be repeating myself here because listening to “I Had It All the Time” (1972) is another fine experience. Willie Henderson still directs, making use of 3 different arrangers. The short stabs of the horns, the swirl of strings, the female backing vocals, the inventive bass & guitar lines, all contributed to an individual & popular sound. Changes in style & taste were reflected back with an innovative Chicago twist for good measure. At the forefront was Tyrone’s rich, assured voice.

 

 

Image result for tyrone davis michael ochsTyrone Davis was Dakar’s star artist & there was an album from him every year until 1975. When his friend, Leo Graham, who had co-written the b-side of “Turn Back…, became his producer Tyrone returned to #1 in the R&B charts with “Turning Point” in 1976. It is a sign of the changing times that such a successful record made no impression on the Pop charts. Deep Soul music no longer got played on the radio, the days of Disco were upon us. “Turning Point” was his last LP for Dakar & Tyrone signed for Columbia where he continued his partnership with Graham.

 

It’s maybe another time for Tyrone’s Columbia years. The 7 LPs he made at Dakar are the ones that keep me coming back to him. The Greatest Hits compilations from these years are indeed great. Songs such as “What Goes Up (Must Come Down)” (1974) were made to be played on the radio & to keep Tyrone’s name in the frame. The 2 CD “Ultimate” & the 3 CD “Ladies Choice” reissues include album tracks, lesser known gems, like “Was It Just a Feeling” which push things a little further & are a delight to discover. There’s a roster of outstanding Chicago Soul singers, Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Major Lance, Walter Jackson, Billy Stewart, Jackie Wilson.  (I’m not forgetting Etta James, Barbara Acklin, Chaka Khan), it’s a list & it’s not complete (oh blimey…Lou Rawls!). Tyrone Davis continued this fine timeline into the 1970s & if you like those singers then you will love the music he made at that time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soul UK (Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band)

Image result for geno washington ram jam bandI never saw Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band play live but I know some (older) people who did. How do you know someone saw Geno? Don’t worry they will tell you. In the mid-1960’s as the Beat Boom gave way to Modernism the local semi-professional bands replaced the R&B standards they had copied from the Stones first LP with the Soul hits of the day. If “Knock On Wood” & “Hold On, I’m Coming” were not in your set then you didn’t get the gig. In clubs across the country knowledgeable crowds came together at the weekend to dance to the American music they loved. The records were great but  when Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band came to your town it was the nearest to the charge, the bolt, the buzz of an American Soul revue that many people were likely to get.

 

 

 

Image result for geno washington posterGeno had come to Britain to fight the Cold War in the early 1960’s. His singing ability was noticed & the Ram Jam Band went to lengths to keep him in Britain, even considering buying him out of the USAF. Managed by the Gunnell brothers, owners of the Flamingo Club, the group had a ready made London residency to establish their reputation. They had a recording contract with Piccadilly, a subsidiary of Pye Records, who in 1966 released a single by John Lennon’s father, a couple of minor hits by singer David Garrick & a lot of easy listening.  The 4 singles released by Geno that year all hovered in or around the Top 40 at a time when only the Top 20 was a thing.

 

Capturing the effervescence of the live experience was always going to prove difficult. In a year when “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”, “Try A Little Tenderness”, “When A Man Loves A Woman” & “It’s A Man’s Man’s World” arrived in the shops then you had to make a pretty good record to separate a Soul fan from their money & the Ram Jam’s records didn’t really stand out. Of course the answer was to record the group live so an audience was invited to Pye’s Marble Arch studio & “Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’ Funky-Butt…Live!” was the outcome.

 

 

In 1966 “H.C.F.S. F-B…Live!” rose to #5 in the UK LP charts. A record of a great night out was what fans wanted & in the following year “Hipster, Flipsters, Finger-Poppin’ Daddies” followed it into the Top 10. Geno may not have been the greatest singer but he was a passionate communicator. If the man with the microphone was telling you to get down & get with it while the band played & danced up a storm then it would be rude not to reciprocate & a great time was had by all.

 

Image result for geno washington posterThe band were kept busy playing to packed crowds all over the country. In the Autumn of 1966 they closed the first half of a package tour which featured the Butterfield Blues Band, Chris Farlowe, Eric Burden & the New Animals & headliner Georgie Fame. Now that’s one for when I finally get this time machine working. The tour was co-promoted by the pirate Radio London & in the Summer of 67 they gave great support to a single which, I thought, would be the breakthrough for Geno Washington. “She Shot A Hole In My Soul” was a minor US R&B hit for Clifford Curry which did not get a UK release at the time. Geno & the Ram Jam Band’s full-bodied Pop-Soul failed to break the charts. The gig diary was always full but the hit single continued to elude them.

 

 

In 1968 the Ram Jam Band went to see the Gunnell Brothers about getting paid & found themselves out of a job. Geno’s new group had longer hair, ditched the Mod clobber & the choreography. The musical landscape was shifting, a set full of Soul covers was no longer on the cutting edge. My friend Pete saw Geno at Brixton’s famous Ram Jam club supported by the upcoming Jimi Hendrix Experience. It’s a good story that I’ve heard many times but there is a lot more Jimi than Geno in it.

 

Image result for geno washingtonBy the Autumn of 1969 the band had broken up. Geno didn’t hang around long before returning to the US. I have always thought that with a better choice of material & more sympathetic production Geno could have had that first hit record & made the break from the club scene to the mainstream. Even without that hit there surely should have been a place for him on the new scene. Even the most stoned of hippies couldn’t fail to be roused by an all-action set of Soul standards. More pertinently a whole lot of people had not given up on this music. In the early 1970’s, through the Northern clubs who had kept the faith, there was a Soul revival which Geno would have been a part of. Instead we are left with folk who are stood on the landing wondering why they had even come upstairs but can remember every moment of the time they saw Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band. Legend.

 

Make Me Believe (Alex Bradford & Gospel)

I’ve always preferred Saturday morning to the other mornings. When I was a child there was no school, the BBC played real Pop music when the rest of the week it behaved as if the Beatles had never happened (there were pirate music stations but my parents controlled the dials), football games for the school team against kids you knew from other schools (so it mattered). As a grown-up there was no work, a lie-in, maybe time for a Full English in the local cafe, anticipation of a good night with family & friends whether at the local juke joint or at the best the city could offer. Mornings like these deserve a complementary soundtrack, music that takes an already raised spirit a little bit higher. Cue Alex Bradford & the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir…

 

 

Image result for alex bradfordHeavens Above! I know very little about Gospel music but I do know that this is one of the most joyous songs I have ever heard. It was Tom Waits, a man with an admirable breadth of excellent taste, who put me on it. Not all of his recommendations, curated on disc or listed in newspapers (remember them?) make it on to the loosehandlebars playlist but I kept returning to “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody”, stamping my feet, clapping my hands, joining the choir & speaking in tongues. (OK, maybe not that last one). I’m aware that the majority of the Soul singers from the 1960’s first performed in church, sometimes adopting an alias for their early recordings as the move from sacred to secular music was frowned upon. I’m interested enough to investigate the work of the peerless Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers but there’s so much crate-digging into Black music of the 60’s & 70’s still to be done that I really do not have the time to properly investigate the decades before. Tom Waits said, “without spirituals and the Baptist Church and the whole African-American experience in this country, I don’t know what we would consider music”. I think he’s right there.

 

“Professor” Alex Bradford, “the Singing Rage of the Gospel Age” (how cool is that?), was born in the steel town, Bessemer, Alabama in 1926. Having spent time in New York (sent there by his parents after an incident with a racist cop) & in the Army during World War II, he moved to Chicago where he worked as an arranger/accompanist/composer for stars Roberta Martin & Mahalia Jackson. He started his own vocal groups, performing at churches & revivals,using his experience in vaudeville, jazz & dance to develop a modern style of Gospel & gaining a reputation as a live attraction. He recorded with Specialty Records & in 1954 wrote a song which was a big success & earned a gold disc.

 

 

 

“Too Close To Heaven” is a surprising Gospel record. At the time the smooth stylings of the Platters & the early Doo-Wop of groups like the Moonglows & the Penguins were carrying the swing in popular Black music. Bradford’s vocal is still impassioned, with just the one lovely falsetto whoop, but the record is by no means the raw, declarative Gospel you might expect. It sounds contemporary to me, not at all out of place on that “1954’s Greatest Hits” album.

 

Related imageSuch a popular song quickly became part of the repertoire of other groups. This wonderful performance of “Too Close…” by the Blind Boys of Alabama is taken from “The Sights & Sounds of Gospel’s Golden Age”, a CD/DVD combo that is tempting my wallet. The Blind Boys, are giving it plenty here, the camera concentrates on charismatic vocalist Clarence Fountain though I wouldn’t mind seeing more of what the rhythm guitarist is up to. Clarence, who went blind at 2 years old, met his bandmates at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf & Blind. They played their first professional date in 1944, had their first hit in 1948 & are still around, being Grammy nominated in 2016. Here his power & presence brings to mind Levi Stubbs of the 4 Tops. As leading lights of Gospel music the Blind Boys had many offers to record secular songs. The rest of the group were in favour of following the money but Clarence, as the vocal lead, was going nowhere. “Who needed it? Our bellies were full, we had no headaches, we were happy. At least, I was happy singing real gospel.” Top man!

 

 

Image result for alex bradfordBy the end of the 1950’s Alex Bradford had stepped away from touring & as the minister of music at the Greater Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey was setting new standards for massed choir singing. He became involved with off-Broadway Gospel influenced theatre productions the first of which, “Black Nativity”, book by Langston Hughes, music arranged by Bradford & his co-star Marion Williams, took him on a successful tour of  Europe. In 1962 the troupe were filmed at a church in Utrecht, Holland, the Bradford Singers being joined by Ms Williams’ group, the Stars of Faith. This snapshot is of a more restrained style of worship, a more theatrical experience than an uninhibited testifying to the Lord. The talent & Art on display is undeniable.

 

I am by no means a religious man but I am moved by emotion & sincerity in music whatever its source, whenever it was recorded. I am still most affected by the African-American voice & its influence on popular music from the slave songs & spirituals to Rap. I may not understand the nuance of the development of Gospel through the decades as I like to think I do with Blues & Soul but the virtuosity & creativity of its finest exponents is proof that the Devil does not have all the best tunes.

Oh Yes! A New Record From Ry Cooder

The announcement of a forthcoming LP by master guitarist Ry Cooder, his first since “Election Special” (2012) is nothing but good news. The video of the title track, “The Prodigal Son”, a re-vamped Gospel song, makes me think that spending some of my hard-earned on something I won’t get for 6 weeks is probably a smart move.

 

 

“Election Special” is a collection of modern protest songs continuing the liberal, populist themes of Cooder’s more recent releases. The best of them, “Brother is Gone”, concerning the deal with Satan made by the polluting, Tea Party sponsoring, Obama opposing Koch Brothers, would make it on to a compilation of his finest work & there’s a lot of competition for places on that. Ry’s 21st Century work has consisted of more of his own songs than before. That’s OK, he has made his socio-political commentaries with integrity & wit while continuing to enhance his reputation as one of the best guitarists on the planet.

 

Image result for ry cooder 2018“The Prodigal Son” returns to a template that has served him very well in the past. His interpretations of Blues, Gospel & R&B tunes, some obscure, some not, have pointed us in the direction of some of the finest 20th Century American music. The title track came his way via the Henley Family Gospel Singers who have been spreading the good word since 1961. Ry has added lyrics which pay tribute to Ralph Mooney, the great pedal steel guitarist who was an essential part of the Bakersfield sound in Country music. He has injected the Blues into the song & though the live video with his new band has been repeatedly viewed,my jaw still drops every time. OK, before we get into the other songs Ry has resurrected for the album let’s hear “Shrinking Man”, the other original tune that Fantasy Records have kindly uploaded to the Y-tube.

 

 

Blind Alfred Reed has been a source of songs for Ry Cooder before. “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times & Live” was on his very first solo record back in 1970 & if you know Ry’s music you know “Always Lift Him Up & Never Knock Him Down”. The fiddle player performed in Virginia in the 1920’s & 30’s until the state banned street musicians in 1937 ! His songs were social commentaries, urging responsible behaviour in a lovely conversational tone. He’s a treasure. This time around Ry has included Alfred’s warning to rich Christians “You Must Unload”.

 

There are songs on the new record from the Gospel canon, one from the Carter Family & 2 by other blind musicians. Blind Roosevelt Graves is credited with inventing Rock & Roll in 1929…amazing! Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark is the Night (Cold is the Ground)” has been described by Cooder as “the most transcendent piece in all American music”. It was included on that debut LP & again on the essential “Paris, Texas” soundtrack. He has arranged 2 of Blind Willie’s songs for this record & you know that they are going to be good. Ry has a musicologist’s respect for his selections but he still injects his own modern take into them Let’s hear the stirring original of “Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right”, recorded with his wife Willie B Harris, in Atlanta, Georgia in 1930.

 

 

 

Image result for ry cooder 2018This year Ry Cooder is taking the show on the road in the US with his son Joachim on drums, multi-instrumentalist Robert Francis & saxophonist Sam Gendel who have all made their own records. It’s been sometime since I enjoyed the experience of seeing Ry play live & as he is now 71 there are not likely to be many more opportunities to do so. If any dates anywhere in Europe are added then I think that I really will have to dust off my bus pass & my passport.

A Simple Song Might Make It Better For A Little While (Arthur Alexander)

Currently on heavy rotation round here is a welcome addition to the record collection. “Rainbow Road: The Warner Bros Recordings” is essentially a 1994 reissue of “Arthur Alexander”, a 1972 LP by that very man, with 3 bonus tracks not included on the original. It’s a great record, under promoted & mostly ignored at the time of release. The title track goes like this…

 

 

Image result for arthur alexander advertI’ve written about Arthur Alexander back when I was new to this blog lark. I got diverted by cover versions of his songs & only featured one of his own. I know, you don’t have to tell me, I’m disappointed in myself. He was certainly a fine & influential songwriter but he is also one of my favourite singers with a warm, restrained, soulful delivery. Any success he had as a Country Soul pioneer was in the early 1960’s, before the explosion of interest in Soul music just a couple of years later. His second single “You Better Move On (1961) was the first hit recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the windfall financed a move to a new facility on Avalon Avenue where musical history would be created. It was successful enough to get a UK release & there were young British musicians who were listening.

 

 

Image result for arthur alexanderThe Rolling Stones recorded their version of “You Better…”in 1963 for a 4 track Extended Play 7”. It stood out as another texture for the group, softer than the Blues & R&B covers that made up the rest of their live set. In 1964 the only track on the Stones debut LP credited to Jagger-Richards, the plaintive Pop ballad “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back)”, had a similar tone to Arthur’s song. Meanwhile, over in Hamburg, the Beatles needed plenty of material to add variety to the up-to six sets a night they had to play & Arthur Alexander’s early singles were plundered by the pre-Fabs. “Anna (Go to Him)” made it on to the “Please Please Me” LP (1963) while there were live versions of “Soldier of Love”, “Where Have You Been” & “Shot of Rhythm & Blues”, songs not written by Alexander but all originally recorded by him. There’s no doubt that John Lennon’s early songwriting, songs like “This Boy” & “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”, were influenced by Arthur’s mid-tempo style.

 

Arthur was signed to Dot Records, a label based in Nashville. The signature piano trill on “Anna” is played by the master session man Floyd Cramer. Dot was mainly a Country label & some of the material he recorded there could be a little conservative, standards that lacked the simple flow that made his own songs so attractive. When his contract ended he signed with Monument Records & his releases were sporadic for the rest of the decade. There are stories of a fondness for drink & amphetamines, breakdowns &, in 1971, a third & final commitment to a state mental hospital. Despite this “The Monument Years”, recordings between 1965-72, is a pretty good collection.

 

 

Related imageOn his release things picked up for Arthur & he signed to Warner Bros. The LP “Arthur Alexander”, his first extended set for 10 years, is produced by Tommy Cogbill, bass player with the Memphis Boys, house band at American Studios. He & his fellow band members, transplanted to Nashville for the sessions are all over the record. Songwriting talents from the 3 centres of Southern music, Nashville, Memphis & Alabama, make contributions to the playlist. On “Rainbow Road”, a wonderful story song co-written by Dan Penn & Donnie Fritts, Alexander’s assured vocal is enhanced by the inimitable guitar of Reggie Young. There are 4 tracks by Country writer Dennis Linde, one of which “Burning Love” was a single just before Elvis took his version into the charts. Steve Cropper off of Booker T & the MG’s has his name on the gentle “Down the Back Roads. My selection is one of Arthur’s own songs, co-written with his now regular partner Thomas Cain. “Mr John” is the kind of down home Americana that Elton John & Bernie Taupin were aiming for on “Tumbleweed Connection”. That LP was awarded a Gold record, this one was a well-kept secret until after the death of the singer. Them’s the breaks in an industry with plenty of similar stories.

 

 

Image result for arthur alexanderArthur didn’t make any money from those cover versions by his illustrious fans. He made more records but, disillusioned with the business, by 1977 he was happy to be at peace with his demons & his God, driving a bus in Cleveland , Ohio with little inclination to perform. He finally responded to continuing respect for & interest in with a well-received comeback in New York which led to the old gang getting back together for the LP “Lonely Just Like Me” (1992). A fine job was made of some old songs, it was the 4th time he had recorded “In the Middle of it All”, obviously a favourite of his.  Moves were being made to get Arthur a better deal on his catalogue of songs when, in 1993, collapsed in one of the meetings & died the next morning. “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way”, from that final album, is proof that class is permanent. It’s a poignant piece of homespun wisdom taken at a lovely easy canter, pure Arthur Alexander. This tribute stops here because I seem to have something in my eye.

The World’s A Nicer Place In My Beautiful Balloon (The 5th Dimension)

OK, it’s January 1969 & the Fifth Dimension, one of America’s most popular vocal groups are being driven in a vintage Renault down La Croisette in Cannes while singing “Sweet Blindness”, the second of the 5 Laura Nyro songs that they took into the charts. Could anything be more groovy ?

 

 

Related imageIn 1966 the Mamas & the Papas were the cat’s pyjamas in American Pop, a permanent fixture on the charts. The 5th Dimension were signed to Soul City Records by Johnny Rivers, a big star in the US but almost unknown in the UK where we were busy with our Big Beat Boom. Rivers’ own records displayed a shrewd eye for the current changes in music & he nicked a hit for his new group with an almost note-for-note cover of the M&P’s “Go Where You Wanna Go”, the one before “California Dreamin'”, the one that almost got away. His first signing to his publishing company was a prolific teenage tunesmith called Jimmy Webb. There were 5 of Webb’s songs on the 5th Dimension’s debut LP (including the exquisite “Rosecrans Boulevard”), one of them was a world-wide smash which won 6 Grammys including Record & Song of the Year. The 5th Dimension were “Up, Up & Away” (ouch!).

 

Image result for 5th dimension magic gardenFor their second LP the group were handed over to Jimmy Webb who wrote 11 of the 12 tracks & shared production duties with Bones Howe, a master engineer & a man who knew about Sunshine Pop (The Turtles, Association). The actor Richard Harris, who also made an LP with Webb at this time, once said (& I paraphrase here) that the young songwriter fell in love, wrote beautiful songs about it, had his heart broken & wrote more great ones about that. “The Magic Garden” (1967) is a concept album based on that relationship & it is one of the lesser celebrated delights of the Summer of Love. It didn’t repeat the debut’s success though the title track sure sounds like a hit to me & an inferior version of “The Worst That Could Happen” made the US Top 3. I loved the upbeat “Carpet Man” but we’ll go for “Paper Cup”, a single that missed the Top 30, because the group went to the trouble of dressing up in their Mod finery for this TV appearance.

 

 

 

5th Dimension were not just about the perfect harmonies, when Billy Davis Jr took the lead his dramatic husky vocals were the very thing. I guess it’s time to mention here that Marilyn & Florence were very striking, the group not only sounded great they looked good too. Spearheaded by the innovative writing talents of Webb & Bacharach & David Pop was moving away from Moon & June rhyming & the adolescent emotions of early 1960’s ballads. There were no rough edges to 5th Dimension”s music & “Easy Listening” was not yet a pejorative term.

 

For the 3rd LP Bones Howe took over sole production, there was only the one Webb track. The selection of 2 songs from “Eli & Thirteenth Confession”, the second LP by New York prodigy Laura Nyro, turned out to be a very good idea. Her soulful, confessional lyrics were often matched to quite offbeat, angular tunes. On “Stoned Soul Picnic” (1968), when they were given the 5th Dimension treatment, the title track & “Sweet Blindness” proved to be very popular. They helped the group become established as a big attraction & there was always at least one Laura Nyro song on their following 4 LPs.

 

 

Image result for 5th dimension concert posterI was not the biggest fan of the Hippie musical “Hair”. The brief nude scene ensured that it gained notoriety & plenty of media attention but as a budding member of the counterculture I couldn’t see how a Broadway/West End stage show could progress the cause of replacing a system dominated by greed for power & money by one based on Love (I was SO much older then!). 5th Dimension combined 2 of the show’s soundtrack, “Aquarius” & “Let the Sunshine In” as a medley & crushed it. A US #1 for 6 weeks, another Record of the Year Grammy. At the time it was ubiquitous & I found the “mystic crystal revelation” of “Aquarius” a bit much. Now, when Joe Osborn of the Wrecking Crew kicks in the bass line of the gospelly “…Sunshine”, all I want to do is boogaloo with Marilyn McCoo (that’s a dance!).

 

 

Related image1969 was the year for 5th Dimension. Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” put them back at #1 in the charts. It was the first song to be released as a single to feature a solo group member (Marilyn) previously they had overlooked perfectly good hit records in favour of songs that featured group harmonies. There was a move to Bell Records where they continued to record with Bones Howe, continued to have hits & were regulars on American TV. I do feel that their TV appearances seemed more formal, more show business, the material more “adult oriented”. They could sing the telephone directory & sound good.  In 1975 Billy & Marilyn, now & still married left to make their own records. The later appearances on “Soul Train”, Bill Withers’ “Harlem”, Nyro’s “Black Patch”, were considered for inclusion here but I’m an absolute sucker for bright Sixties Sunshine Pop so it’s back to one of those great first 4 LPs they made. “California Soul” was written by Motown’s new hot couple Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, the third hit single from the “Aquarius” LP. Oh yeah, 1969, the sun is shining, 5th Dimension on the radio & everything is groovy